Sunday, May 13, 2007

On The Whole

All things Whole and Wholesome

I have always been intrigued, even at times mystified, by the word “whole.” At college I loved the phrase or even sentence which many of our lectures used, i.e., “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This latter introduced me to paradox, mystery and mysticism all of which sought to view life in the round or as a whole as it were. The above sentence is true in almost every science it seems to me. The car is certainly more than the sum of its parts. Any random sum of its parts is merely a set if one is to use the language of modern mathematics and will amount to nothing more than a set of random objects. These random objects that go to make up a car must be put together in an intelligent order thereby allowing the “whole” of it, as it were, to function in a practical manner as a vehicle capable of being g driven and carrying people and objects from A to B.

The body is made up of organs, but no random stitching of organs together can make a functioning body. There is a “wholeness” of life which seems to pervade the parts or organs that makes for real human life. Likewise randomly putting atoms together won’t make molecules, or randomly putting molecules together won’t make tissues, randomly putting tissues together won’t make organs and so on. There needs to be appropriate conditions for all of the foregoing, - a life force, wherever it comes from, needs to enliven the whole reality as it were. I hasten to add that I am here positing no particular religious viewpoint, just marvelling at the mystery and complexity of what life is in itself, in se as it were. How hard this is to grasp has for centuries now been of interest to philosophers. Some of these have pointed out that such musings are always fraught with difficulties, even doomed to ultimate failure, as humankind is a very part of the life it wishes to contemplate. Here we are at that essential distinguishing quality of homo sapiens namely self-reflection and self-consciousness and ultimately self-transcendence.

Indeed psychologists tell us that man perceives patterns and relationships and wholes as it were to make sense of life. If we look at an incomplete four-sided figure we perceive that very thing an incomplete rectangle, square or parallelogram – the mind immediately jumps to the complete object namely square, rectangle etc and sees that to complete it we need only draw a little line. Likewise with other shapes – the mind gravitates towards wholes or units.

Also I was always intrigued by the writings of S. T. Coleridge (1772-1834) to whom I have alluded many times in these pages. Samuel Taylor spoke about what he called “the unity behind the multeity”, that is the unifying whole or unity behind the multitude of interconnected, though seemingly random, objects of this world of our senses. Likewise, John Henry Newman (1801-1890) sought to view the world as a whole saying that man did not believe in God, or indeed in anything at all I should imagine, without first being convinced in the round by all his experiences not just solely by logic on the one hand or even by his sense experiences alone on the other. In other words from his experience of life Newman was deeply conscious that our permanent convictions and beliefs (obviously Newman was alluding to Christian beliefs, but his contentions hold for any beliefs with the possible exception of hardcore atheistic ones like those of Richard Dawkins to whose reductionism and evangelical atheism I must return in a later post) are reached, not by the intellect alone, but by the whole person functioning as a thinking, feeling and willing unity. Newman calls this our “compound nature.”

He found it simply impossible to be a reductionist, to think otherwise than in continual reference to the whole. In his Apologia (1865) (Revised critical edition Wilfred Ward, 1913) through which I waded when doing my Masters (STL) in theology in the early 90s of the last century, he insists that in any controversy in which he was involved that he “had a great impatience, whatever was the subject, of not bringing out the whole of it, as clearly as I could.” Nowhere did he express this basic vision with greater force than in the following oft-quoted passage from this same book: “For myself it was not logic that carried me on…It is the concrete being which reasons; pass a number of years and I find myself in a new place; how? The whole man reasons; paper logic is but a record of it.” Indeed Newman had little time, consequently, for rationalist apologetics of the Archbishop Fulton Sheehan (1895-1979) school of theology, since religion was not “a deduction from premises”

And now for a wee quote from the ever irreverend avant-guard novelist and diarist Anais Nin (1903-1977) to finish off this longer than expected post: “Truth is something which can't be told in a few words. Those who simplify the universe only reduce the expansion of its meaning.” Those who think they know it all, don’t. Socrates (470-399 B.C.) was right – ignorance is the beginning of true wisdom. As we learn something new each day we must, therefore, continually admit our ignorance. Hence we have what Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.)later called a “docta ignorantia” or “a learned ignorance” or indeed, better still, a learning ignorance. The universe of truth is out there ever before us as Isaac Newton (1642-1727) once said.

Above I have placed a picture of the French National Library, designed like two open books, which I took in Summer 2006. No matter how many books we have they will never contain all that there is to be known.